In contemporary New York City, Steve, a theater writer/director, is at his South American media artist friend Lydia’s studio. He is working on a show comprised of recorded interviews with five people on the subject of death, and he is also interviewing Lydia on the matter. They switch from their conversations to becoming the personas of the interviewees and act out their responses. This is all accompanied by high-tech flashiness of fluctuating lighting, loud music, and projections of abstract and cityscape images, as well as clips from Cocteau’s film Orpheus.
That is a motif, as at one point in the show’s second half Steve puts on an animal skin rug that’s been on the floor and a black sleep mask, and acts out Orpheus. This bit gets projected onto the walls. He and Lydia go off stage to chatter during one sequence.
The subjects of the interviews are an actor, an artist, a British philosopher, a psychologist and a “sixty-something woman, New Yorker, Jewish.” Collectively, it’s a rarified cross section, and so the overall tone of the discourse is in the category of navel gazing without much emotional impact.
Anna Deavere Smith pioneered this form of documentary theater where she interviews people on a subject and configures the transcripts into a play composed of substantive monologues, which she then performs as all of the characters. This has resulted in significant works such as Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities.
Cosson’s use of this technique is not as effective. The construction is that of a slew of quirky snippets lacking depth and focus. These combined with the busy presentation all make for a slog. Individually some of the ruminations resonate.
The “actor” is Everett Quinton. Mr. Quinton has had a legendary career on the alternative stages of New York City. Quinton’s life-partner Charles Ludlum was the founder of the historic Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 44. Quinton’s next life partner also died of AIDS. He shares humorous and poignant observations on the disease and about his own health, and his opinions on existence and death.
Dan Domingues as Steve and Aysan Celik as Lydia are capable and charming actors. However, they’re each called upon not only to have to deliver depictions of the affected leading characters, but also rapid-fire and alternating characterizations of the other creative types, employing a barrage of accents and tics. The results are superficial and often grating.
Scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg’s airy, white room with strategically aesthetic furnishings and accessories perfectly conveys the sense of being in a creative environment. Ms. Ginsberg’s upscale bohemian costume design definitely suits the characters.
Lighting designer Thomas Dunn, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel and projection designer Tal Yarden’s high caliber, but over-used contributions enable The Undertaking to attain visual and aural achievement.
The show is a production of The Civilians. This is an emerging, New York City-based, “investigative” theater company co-founded by Cosson in 2001, that derives pieces from field research. It’s “dedicated to creating and producing work that dynamically engages our broader social and political environment.”
The Undertaking was presented at the 2016 BAM Next Wave Festival, where it was a critical and popular success.
If it were performed at a museum, The Undertaking would be the sort of thing one could inquisitively watch for a while and then leave to look at something else.
The Undertaking (through February 4, 2018)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission